William the Conqueror Introduces the Castle to England

Some might find it surprising, perhaps even down right odd, that the early Anglo-Saxon English had hardly any motte-and-bailey castles (Morris 208). Despite the clear development of castles in France, the English did not have many in the years before the Norman Conquest of 1066 (Brown 126). There were a few exceptions as noted by The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1051 which records a few castles being built along the English and Welsh border by Edward the Confessor, who had French help in the construction (Cawthorne para. 4). For the most part, the Anglo-Saxons of the eleventh century relied on their own fortifications, which “consist[ed] of royal boroughs, which were communal and not private and residential fortresses” like the castles (Brown 127).

This difference in fortification building between the French and the English was partly due to the Vikings (Morris 00:4:07-00:4:17). England had managed to muster a unified response that drove the Vikings out, whereas France’s response was much more fragmented, resulting in nobles building “private fortifications” in order to protect themselves (Morris 00:4:20-00:5:00).

Despite their fortifications, the French were never able to fully drive the Vikings out of France (Morris 00:5:05-00:5:21). Ultimately, some Vikings ended up settling in a region in northern France that had been offered “in A.D. 911 [by] the Frankish King Charles” in an attempt to limit the severity of the devastation in France that they continually wrought with their raids (Etrusia para. 3). That area became known as Normandy, and it is almost ironic that these former Vikings began building castles too (Morris 00:5:25-00:5:55). Indeed it seems that “by the middle of the eleventh century, the Normans were experts at building them” (Morris 00:12:50-00:12:55). One Norman in particular seemed to be all too aware of the motte-and-bailey castles’ strategic importance, often building them in his duchy of Normandy and his conquered territories (DeVries & Smith 214). His name was William the Conqueror (Devries & Smith 214).

The knowledge of castle design was imported to England by William the Conqueror who brought it with him when he crossed the English Channel in 1066 (Hudson para. 36). The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events relevant to William the Conqueror’s conquest of England, including William’s construction of castles (MacLeod para. 2). The tapestry provides an interesting portrayal of the type of castle being built showing that “they were originally built as wooden stockades placed atop artificial mounds,” which is recognizable as a motte-and-bailey design (MacLeod para. 2). In the early months of his conquest alone, “William built at least three motte-and-bailey castles” (DeVries & Smith 214). A section of the Bayeux Tapestry (shown below) depicts the second motte-and-bailey castle he built in England, which was constructed at Hastings (DeVries & Smith 214) and involved repurposing sections of the old Iron Age hill fort (Cawthorne para. 10). This construction is collaborated by other sources too like The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of A.D. 1066: “they constructed a castle at the port of Hastings”.


Unknown Weaver. “The Construction of Hastings Castle Depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.” Bayeux Tapestry. English (c. 1080). Museum of Reading. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hastings_Castle#/media/File:Tapestry_by_unknown_weaver_-_The _Bayeux_Tapestry_(detail)_-_WGA24172.jpg. Accessed 17, Nov. 2016.

It might seem like William’s conquest of England was finalized when his army defeated King Harold’s at the Battle of Hastings (Dolman, et. al). However, the London nobles simply picked another king, forcing William to revert to conquering the land (Morris 00:15:23-00:15:35). As he marched, William continued to construct motte-and-bailey castles, which proved useful in maintaining control over the lands that he had seized (DeVries & Smith 215). William marched toward London, but The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of A.D. 1066 says that rather than attack it directly, he “ravaged all the country that he overran”. The scare tactic worked, and the leading nobles of the capital ultimately submitted to William (Dolman, et. al 7). He was now recognized as King of England.

Unfortunately, the majority of the English population was naturally resistant to the idea of being ruled by a foreign power and vented their dissatisfaction in the form of rebellions (Morris 00:22:14-00:22:30). Realizing the difficulties that naturally come with using a limited amount of soldiers to maintain control over a huge populous, William turned to erecting castles (DeVries & Smith 215). Hundreds of motte-and-bailey castles were built to help manage the conquered people (Hindley para. 26). In fact “by counting all the [earthy remains of the] old motte-and-baileys, historians now agree that about five hundred castles were built in the first twenty years after the conquest” (Morris 00:38:30-00:38:40).The castles seem to have largely been a success. The revolts were “quite easily put down by the Normans, with a motte-and-bailey castle often playing a role in the suppression” (DeVries & Smith 215).

Most historians acknowledge that the success of the Norman Conquest was, in part, related to their use of castles (Morris 00:39:15-00:39:36). Castles provided a defendable base from which the cavalry garrison could control their surrounding (Morris 00:11:38-00:12:18).The English themselves seem to have noticed this fact too. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dating from A.D. 1066 bemoans that “Earl William lived here afterwards, and wrought castles widely through this country, and harassed the miserable people; and ever since has evil increased very much. May the end be good, when God will”. The English chronicler and Benedictine monk Ordericus Vitalis also makes the connection between the Norman success and the lack of native English castles (Brown 127). He writes that “‘the fortifications that the Normans called castles were scarcely known in the English provinces, and so the English—in spite of their courage and love of fighting—could put up only a weak resistance to their enemies’” (quoted in Morris 208).

However, William the Conqueror seemed to recognize that motte-and-bailey castles were “temporary defenses” (DeVries & Smith 223). He turned to constructing something more permanent. This resulted in keeps like the White Tower located in London, which was the “prototype” for the castles that would later develop in Britain (Morris 00:40:19-00:40:25).


chaoticblackcat. “The White Tower, Tower of London.” 22 June 2014.

There had been stone castles previously in France, and indeed, the Tower’s design “may have been borrowed from a particular building in Normandy of about AD 1000” (Dolman, et. al. 49). But, fueled by an element of paranoia resulting from the unrest in the newly conquered land, the newer compact design essentially combined the multiple rooms that the king would require (the apartments, the chapel, etc.) into one building protected by thick stone walls (Morris 00:41:50-00:42:27). Similar stone keeps started being built in Britain in imitation of it (Dolman, et. al. 49). This intimidating design was known as the ‘keep’ or donjon in Norman French (Hindley para. 26). This design would soon replace the motte-and-baileys as the new preferred castle structure and would be the preferred structure until its own replacement.

Works Cited

Brown, R. Allen.“The Norman Conquest.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol.17, 1967, pp. 109-130, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3678722. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.

Cawthorne, Ellie. “Castles of the Conqueror.” BBC History Magazine, 11 Oct. 2016. www.historyextra.com/article/bbc-history-magazine/castles-william-the-conqueror-norman-conquest-1066. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.

chaoticblackcat. “The White Tower, Tower of London.” 22 June 2014.

DeVries, Kelly, and Robert Douglas Smith. “Chapter Eight: Motte-and-Bailey Castles.” Medieval Military Technology, 2nd ed., University of Toronto Press, 2002. pp. 211-222.

DeVries, Kelly, and Robert Douglas Smith. “Chapter Nine: Stone Castles.” Medieval Military Technology, 2nd ed., University of Toronto Press, 2002. pp. 223-260.

Dolman, Brett, et. al. Experience the Tower of London. Historic Royal Palaces, 2013.

Etrusia. “Who Were the Normans?” The Normans: The Norman Invasion and Conquest of England. normans.etrusia.co.uk/whowere.php. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.

Hindley, Geoffrey. “Chapter Two: Strong Points in a Landscape.” Medieval Sieges & Siegecraft. NewYork: Skyhorse Publishing, 2009, EBSCO Host, web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?nobk=y&sid=a1f019df-6781-4b9a-9888-dfa51b59e708@sessionmgr4008&vid=44&hid=4204&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ==#AN=648279&db=nlebk. Accessed 02 Nov 2016.

Hudson, John. “Overview: The Normans, 1066-1154.” BBC, 20 June 2011. www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/normans/overview_normans_01.shtml#five. Accessed 18 Nov. 2016.

MacLeod, Dave. “The Bayeux Tapestry: Unpicking the Past.” BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/normans/bayeux_tapestry_gallery_06.shtml. Accessed 18 Nov. 2016.

Morris, Marc. “Castle Episode 1: Tower of London & Dover Castle.” Discovery Channel, Youtube, uploaded by HistoriaandHistory, 2003, www.youtube.com/watch?v=slLf1Nq8o2Q. Accessed 06 Dec. 2016.

—. “Chapter 13: Insurrection.” The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England. Pegasus Books, 2012, pp. 205-231.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated by James Ingram, 1823. Yale Law School: Lillian Goldman Law Library, 2008. avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/ang11.asp. Accessed 25 Nov. 2016.

Unknown Weaver. “The Construction of Hastings Castle Depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.” Bayeux Tapestry. English (c. 1070s). Museum of Reading. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hastings_Castle#/media/File:Tapestry_by_unknown_weaver_-_The_Bayeux_Tapestry_(detail)_-_WGA24172.jpg. Accessed 17, Nov. 2016.



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